Why Talk About Leadership?

After reading Steven Denning’s article, “The Surprising Reasons Why America Lost Its Ability To Compete,” based on his reactions to a Harvard study, my first thought was about the need to discuss leadership.

Please take a look at the article and study for yourself if you are able. The gist of Denning’s piece is that top American corporate leaders do not see themselves responsible for the loss of this country’s global competitiveness. The fix, he says, is going to be enormously challenging, requiring a full-scale paradigm shift from focus on short term profits and shareholder value to an emphasis on building customer-centered, truly sustainable organizations. To do so will require a deeper understanding and appreciation for a system that includes society as a whole, not just business in isolation. There’s nothing easy about the results of the study or Steve’s reactions. It’s like watching the slow collision of tectonic plates. At one level, it’s all an abstraction; at another it’s about the earthquakes around the corner, the sinkholes that may open up and swallow our homes and livelihoods.

The article and study, however, are not what this post is about. Rather, it is about about the world we all seem to be living in now, one radically different than the one we knew only a few short years ago, about the more intimate question of what people are experiencing these days and the system they are operating within at ground level. It’s one thing to decry the principles of short-term profits; it’s another to go to the mailbox in fear. And what ties those things together is the idea that leadership might exist, might somehow rise out of the very sense of powerlessness that seems to grip many. The opposite of that leadership hope is the experience of survival.


What I hear behind the scenes, in the hallways and parking lots these days are questions. Where are they going? Where are they taking us? Do they even know? Can they ever agree? What’s in it for them seems to be driving us and I’m scared.

What’s clear is that the contract seems to have been changed — again. More than ever, people are learning to see themselves as commodities, as pawns, taught they must fend for themselves and yet be happy and optimistic about a world in which the sense of threat has been amplified beyond reason and their views, opinions and experiences mean even less. The idea of an inclusive we-based organization seems farther off than ever before. Big tides are carrying us to new places…and maybe right over the falls while studies are done and articles are written describing the winners and losers, arguing conservative and liberal philosophies, blaming the government, blaming the greedy capitalists. And while everything stalls out, who is affected? Whose life is in the vise-grip of anxiety?

Leadership is a term that touches everything in the workplace and is the widest, strongest bridge between people and the systems they work within. It’s also a term that touches the context of organizations, meaning the culture of the society in which enterprises are “nested,” and the conditions of that context. Just so, talking about leadership is absolutely essential when times are this tense and people feel this afflicted.

Now, I’m not talking about some highly confidential, centripetal exchange as part of a retreat for the senior management team, or some very controlled, intellectually watered down conversation about leadership that is part of a management training program. This isn’t the one with case-studies and Theories X and Y, and a shallow list of do’s and don’ts. It’s the one that’s really open, that’s invited by those who are in the leadership roles asking what others see about them and leadership of the enterprise.

I don’t know of many leaders that have the courage to convene and follow-through on such broad conversations and then using them as catalysts for meaningful change. In my career, I’ve certainly met a few, but the majority have not been that brave or connected to systems thinking. Their hesitations to have the conversation, as I have heard them, include:

• “It would be unclear what the purpose of the conversation would be”
• “We don’t have time now”
• “It will just turn into a gripe session”
• “It could be embarrassing or painful”
• “Staff are already doing this — there’s no problem with people speaking up”
• “Others’ emotions could surface. We’d lose control”
• “It would lead to tension, discord, conflict and blaming, creating a mess”
• “It won’t do any good”
• “Why make people uncomfortable?”
• “We don’t do touchy-feely”
• “This is not our mission — we’re not responsible for the Recession”

These are stated as personal reservations, but they also turn out to be very common rationales across many organizations, making them cultural and therefore systemic reasons why open conversation about leadership is not as possible as it needs to be. Make no mistake, these statements represent genuine concerns that cannot be magically dismissed. People need tons of support to begin to face this stuff and decide for themselves how best to proceed, how best to exercise their courage.

The system, it turns out, is adaptable, but only when it is discerned for what it is: self-referential, self-protective, and, above all, personal. In my experience, you can’t get to that layer unless you examine things holistically and if you want to do that well and in a way that will actually induce collaborative change, you can’t just analyze to find and point out the contradictions. There are plenty of them to find, but feedback alone and particularly the kind of feedback that cynically points out every hypocrisy, is never enough. If you really want change, you must do that discernment work in an environment where genuine care and support for the human beings in the room is pre-eminent. You must show your deep respect and care for the people who are there as individuals, as members of teams, as part of a common, shared-in enterprise. You must show concern for the whole system, and all of society in which you operate. Many of us know how to do the cynical analysis part, the point-out-the-hypocrisy part, but care for the human community isn’t yet a full part of the platform.

The thing about such leadership conversations, including the potential fears that go with them, is that they are about helping us see what we are actually part of and where we participate and help create what we’ve got, for good or ill. It’s about building understanding together and deciding together how best to challenge and change the conditions of our work and our common society. A hierarchy, by comparison, is about an elite that does not have to care or need to know what it participates in, that all too often is isolated from real-world impacts on real people, that retains power precisely through the unconsciousness that goes with the power.

Just so, Denning’s article is a small part of macro-level leadership conversation, and about the major overhaul that’s going on right now in the way we think about “business” and society. We are so lucky to have this opportunity to talk about it because free speech is valued here and after all, it’s an overhaul we are all part of. But the macro conversation is not enough. It also needs to happen locally, here and now in our own organizations, and in a very open-ended way. Leaders, us, you and I need to convene the conversation. It’s about ourselves and the organizations we are guiding. The conversations need to be as inclusive as possible. Maybe that means Board members and entry level associates in the same room. Maybe it’s people who applied for jobs and didn’t get them. Maybe it’s hearing from customers who didn’t get what they came for. And maybe it’s just the folks across the hall in that other department who we’ve never met.

And always the questions can be the same, “How are we — as leaders — doing? How is it going for you? What should we talk about together? What problems have we got? Have we caused? What are we missing that we need to know and can work on with you?”

In doing so, if it’s at all real, it’s likely there will be conflict, blame, maybe even embarrassment in the conversation. Maybe it will feel like the wrong stuff to be working on, a poor use of our time. Maybe it will feel like just a lot of unresolved gripes. Maybe we won’t feel prepared. Maybe people will get upset, tense and reactive; maybe as leaders we will begin to feel out of control. Maybe unearthing our real assumptions and beliefs — the ones we hear ourselves express in the moment — will just create discord and conflict and anxiety and maybe it’s going to feel like it won’t do anybody any good at all. Perhaps it will just make us and others squirm because it is too much about our feelings, our relationships with one another, and our battling values. But that’s how, after all, a system is most likely to see itself and understand itself, by going into the real exchange that violates every one of the systemic reasons listed above for not having it.

Thus the need for extraordinary care for all who engage, for love and authenticity, and the desire to create safety while taking the risk personally to tread in awkward places.

And what’s the outcome of this conversation? The deepest possible affirmation of what we can do and be together. And work…hard work…to address the needed changes.

If we don’t have this conversation, if we don’t ever really enter the forest, thick as it is, choosing instead simply to avoid and numb out what’s happening, it’s pretty clear what we will lose. You can call that anything you want but I think in the end it’s about the loss of people, of the human spirit, of human being. It’s about something colder and more impersonal and more disempowering than ever coming into the workplace and making that an excuse for what is. All of which is to say we have to decide whether to open ourselves, reveal ourselves and our vulnerabilities, get stronger and lead — or not — like a bear contemplating biting into a bee hive. The bear inevitably will get stung, but that’s also the only way the bear will ever get the honey.

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  • Hi Dan,

    How do I respond to such a deep and masterful piece?

    It reminds me (perhaps oddly) of a film I saw recently that looked at the culture of the people who had farmed the land for hundreds of years, largely unchanged, in England at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Strange omens appeared, dreams of smokestacks that people had never seen and little anxieties crept into everyday life. In the past, they had time to adapt to everything new that was introduced into daily life. Even though life for them was not easy, the slower and simpler life they inherited from their ancestors was about to be thrown into chaos and harsher realities were inevitable.

    I think, we’re there. We’re at the point where we know massive changes are engulfing us, some we see coming, others we don’t, clouding us with this constant mesh of anxiety in facing the unknown. But the “field” is vastly larger than for those farmers. A decision in the Eurozone may impact my business next week. Melting ice in the polar caps in the Arctic may flood my field in the UK next season.

    Some of us avoid what we have categorized as “political” conversations as we do not want to engage or offend. We shy away from talk that is still taboo in most business settings, for reasons, as you say, “there is not time,” “it will turn into a gripe session.” Yet, most corporations we work for are heavily engaged in huge contributions to politicians and issues that influence every facet of life, affecting how we live now and will live in the future. It’s not business as usual. We’re in new territory. Another conversation we don’t engage.

    As a society we face unprecedented income equality. This situation grows worse every day and is not sustainable. We write articles about leadership and engagement and people are going hungry and untreated medically, right next door.

    There is a massive elephant in the room and you are shining a big light on it in this article.

    Like you, I can only ask questions. This is too big for me alone – but I believe – not for us together. But we have to have the conversation – all of us – as you point out, ” Leaders, us, you and I need to convene the conversation. It’s about ourselves and the organizations we are guiding. The conversations need to be as inclusive as possible. Maybe that means Board members and entry level associates in the same room. Maybe it’s people who applied for jobs and didn’t get them. Maybe it’s hearing from customers who didn’t get what they came for. And maybe it’s just the folks across the hall in that other department who we’ve never met.”

    We have to enter the forest. We’re all leaders now. We have to be.

    Much appreciation,

  • Thanks, Louise.

    It’s clear we share a kinship and I love your last lines…

    I also deeply appreciate your observation about the irony of writing (high level) articles about leadership and engagement while people are hungry and hurting and uncared for. There’s another perennial question leaders can ask — “How am I colluding in the very problems I say I want to solve?”

    I’m glad you are willing to enter that forest, too. There are a lot of us, and every hope of finding a path through the trees…

    All the best

  • Leadership will not stop the precaritisation of work – ‘courageous conversations’ will only serve to mask this trend.
    Denning’s article is important and points to the systemic shift needed.

  • Hi Thabo

    Thanks for weighing in on this post — one I feel very strongly about, for what it’s worth.

    I had to look it up — but I love the phrase you use, “precaritisation of work,” which I understand combines the meanings of work becoming more “precarious” and the synchronous creation of a new kind of “proletariat.”

    It may well be true that individual leaders hosting conversations about leadership will not be able to stop the precaritisation of work or the creation of a “precariat,” as deeper social trends. This deeply affects me — it frankly makes me sad. I feel that precaritisation happening in myself and also in my clients. It seems like everyone at every level, including top leaders, feel exactly that “class-ification” occurring, which is one reason no one ever seems to have enough, no matter what they’ve already got. It seems to be a very long-term trend, first articulated (ironically so) for me in Tom Peters’ book, Brand You, many years ago.

    It is an aspect of what I alluded to toward the end of my post as something new and more impersonal coming into the workplace, a new kind of survival, side-taking, and destructive competition.

    But I haven’t given up all hope. Deeper conversations about leadership can be transformative and create a new sense of community and a better understanding of exactly how systems of work and relationships are bound together, not simply create a new set of adversaries or unwin-able arguments. At least that’s been my own personal experience.

    I don’t, by the way, see conversations about leadership as a “cure-all to systemic issues,” just the ingredient that is most frequently missing; a leverage point for change. I don’t have a cure-all, nor do I have any easy answers. Just a heart-felt place to start.

    Aung San Suu Kyi in her book, Freedom from Fear, makes the point that democracy doesn’t make life easier — it just points to hard work that’s a whole lot better than human violence. I’d say that’s close to where I’m coming from.

    Again, thank you so much for your comment, for it opens a door to exactly what needs to take place — an exchange — which is precisely what we need. I know for myself that I cannot learn without it.

    Here’s hoping to continue the conversation — and for others to weigh in, as well!

    All the best

  • […] Why talk about leadership? – After reading Steven Denning’s article, “The Surprising Reasons Why America Lost Its Ability To Compete,” based on his reactions to Harvard study, my first thought was about the need to discuss leadership. […]

  • Reidar Hansen wrote:

    Dan, I really resonate with your post and follow-up comments.However, you have articulated it much more eloquently than I could ever imagine.You may remember the article I discussed with you about fear in the workplace which I was going to submit to the Journal of Employee Assistance.At that time , I saw EA professionals, especially those who worked in internal programs having a key role in starting the conversations in their organizations. I based this on their perceived “finger on the pulse” of their organization due to their contact with all levels of the organization. EAPs, in many organizations, serve as internal consultants on many “people Issues’ and generally know way more than they are given credit for. Unfortunately, many internal and external programs are either unwilling or ill prepared to approach management at any level to begin these conversations due to their own fears.For externals, this may be about losing their contract with the company. For internals,the fear may that they will be accused of “scope creep,or going outside of their prescribed role in the organization. Certainly, these fears are based in some reality. With that said, EA professionals could be game changers in many organizations by putting the “undiscussibles” on the table in front of leaders. Things like the disparity between productivity, CEO salaries, and worker compensation could be the catalysts for discussions about worker morale, conflict,employee retention, use of medical benefits, etc. We live in organic systems and have to come to realize that what happens in one part of the organization, effects other parts of the organization.
    Years ago while I was working at a major oil company, we began focusing on the short term and adding value for stockholders (as Denning’s article states). We went through 2-3 downsizings and one merger in my 13 years there, mostly predicated on profits and stockholder value. Little care was shown toward the employees except to help ease the pain of being terminated (that was partly the role of the EAP) and to help prevent violent responses by those leaving the company. Those who remained were considered lucky to have jobs and the message was, “get back to work and be even more productive.” This response was not unique to my company. Colleagues reported this in their organizations.
    At that time we had an opportunity to begin a conversation with management about the ideas you have expressed. In many cases management, especially front line managers, were asking us for answers on how to relate to the workforce and help their people deal with the changes,Unfortunately, we focused on a band-aid approach to the problem (heal the wounded and get them back on line) rather than discussing the more systemic issues facing the organization.Perhaps we lacked the intervention skills needed at the time, had our own fears, or were just too busy to pay attention to the opportunity.

  • Reidar

    Your examples are right in line with my own observations — that the needed real exchanges have often been suppressed. There have been so many missed opportunities to build a different kind of organization, and, unfortunately, these “missed opportunities” reflect very broad economic forces and fundamentally flawed (and sometimes very destructive) management philosophies. We are all part of that. Please note, I’m saying “management theories,” not leadership ones.

    EAP folks in my experience are most frequently very sensitive to the impacts of change, culture, and management practice on people. They are often the very definition of “ground-level” in their work. And they, too, are part of the same system, locked up by fear and the desire for survival.

    To me, the situation is less about the intervention skills themselves than the raw willingness to intervene. That’s precisely why and how it is a leadership issue, and why movement has been so slow. No one wants to lose their livelihood, just as people didn’t want to lose their lives as part of the civil rights movement, and that’s exactly what keeps the system and its trend-lines going.

    True leaders will notice, however, and they will broach the undiscussables that include their own thinking, beliefs, and behavior. They will invite a broad array of members of the system — including key helpers, such as EAP folks — into the discussion. They will open the doors, look, trust, serve, follow their own destinies and best Selves, and they will do the right thing.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences and perspectives, here, Reidar. You are much appreciated.

  • Arabella wrote:

    Dan – as always a very thought-provoking, enlightening, and powerful post.

    I just took the time to read Denning’s article – also lots to think about. I have to say that behind and through some of his prescriptive ideas, I heard many echoes of W. Edwards Deming – focus on continual improvement (or innovation), customers first, let go of short-term thinking, create constancy of (a higher) purpose. I know from your “Drive out fear” book that you have more than passing familiarity with Deming. Thoughts?

  • Hi Arabella

    Yes, I saw the same kinds of principles at work in Denning’s article, including Deming’s exhortation to develop an “Appreciation for a System.” I respect Denning’s article a great deal and through my own wanted to add the thought that leaders themselves may well not be able to get to that appreciation unless there’s a profound opening to do so.

    My hope in encouraging the convening of the “leadership conversation” is precisely to generate one possible — and often neglected — opening. When that conversation is truly on the table, it is a wonderful chance to begin thinking in more systemic and less hierarchical terms.

    Thanks for asking, Arabella, and for creating space to clarify where there’s an overlap with my book, “Driving Fear Out of the Workplace.” Thank you!

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